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Switching over to sales

News Analysis
Sep 22, 20035 mins
IT LeadershipNetworking

Some network professionals parlay their technical experience into jobs selling IT products and services.

It should’ve worked out as the dream of any network professional who sets up his own systems integration business – delegate the sales and marketing to a trained professional and focus on setting strategy as CTO. But Steven Morgan turned out to be a natural at sales and hired another techie for the CTO role.

Some 10 years later, in 1996, Morgan, who began his technical career as a network engineer at reseller Computerland, sold his share of the business and joined McAfee as a sales representative. He rose quickly through the ranks and became a vice president of sales just a year and a half later.

Having little formal sales training, Morgan says his technical background helped him land the job because he understood technology and could show empathy with customers. Today, Morgan is president and CEO of SalesRecruits.com, the online recruitment service he founded for IT sales professionals.

In a tough economic climate, it’s wise to take stock of your skills and options should you find yourself on the job market. A career in IT sales might be a possibility. According to Morgan, there’s no cap on salary for talented and experienced sales executives, and some IT workers could double their salaries by switching to sales.

“Technologists offer trust and credibility because they truly understand what customers are trying to do,” Morgan says. “That’s the difference compared to salespeople from a sales background who try to understand but don’t have the background knowledge.”

Frank Chisholm, president and CEO of AptSoft, makers of tools that speed application integration, is another IT professional turned sales executive. He worked within the IS department of Scott Paper as an internal MIS consultant. Having become so impressed by Cullinet Software’s IDMS database, he went to work for the vendor and was given the lofty title of manager, Mid-Atlantic region. “But I quickly figured out it was a sales role,” he jokes.

It was relatively easy for Chisholm to make the jump to sales because he did so in 1977, when the software industry was just starting out, and it was the norm for techies to sell to other techies. “All the people at Cullinet were database administrators,” he recalls. Cullinet’s sales presentations would last four hours and consist of 144 35mm slides.

Almost 30 years later, with many experienced IT sales professionals competing for jobs, the picture looks a lot different. The route might not be so direct for IT executives with no sales experience. Morgan explains: “I don’t think my opinion [that techs offer customers trust and credibility] is universally accepted among larger vendors that are more inclined to hire people with sales skills.”

Salesmanship suggestions

Want a new challenge where you could use your technical skills to your advantage? A career in IT sales could be worth considering. Here’s some advice from IT pros who made the jump:

Rip through the stereotype of tech people being regarded as having weak social and interpersonal skills. If you enjoy the company of people more than your keyboard, develop your social qualities.

Learn to be flexible. IT people see things in black and white, but you can’t do that in sales.

Ask your sales colleagues if you can sit in on sales calls and observe. If possible, take a sales training program.

Tap smaller companies or start-ups for sales-related opportunities. Call the CEO or sales vice president directly to show initiative.

Play up your strengths as a tech professional. Your background lets you empathize with customers, maintain credibility and communicate easily with other techies.

Demonstrate that you’re comfortable giving group presentations and that you have organizational skills.

Dress and think business-smart.

Show commitment. Even if you’re not hired the first time around, get re-skilled and reapply.

One steppingstone is a pre-sales support engineer. Described by some vendors as systems engineers, a pre-sales engineer provides technical support to an account representative, helping to demonstrate a product to prospective customers. From there, it is possible to move to a sales role.

“Sales support engineers carry their technology skills with them and are not exclusively responsible for sales. They are a sales resource,” Morgan says. The compensation structure for sales support might be more or less appealing depending on your level of comfort with risk. According to Morgan, 50% of a sales executive’s income is commission, but for pre-sales, 10% to 20% of total compensation comes from commission.

Bob Suhay, director of network consulting for 3Com, worked as an internal systems analyst at Ericsson for four years before joining 3Com in 1994 as a pre-sales tech support. He already had gained pre-sales experience when he worked for a now-defunct reseller before Ericsson.

Suhay found it was an easy transition to go from working within Ericsson’s internal IT department to a sales support role at 3Com. “I can walk into a customer account and know what the folks are facing. I have empathy,” he says.

Morgan says tech professionals also should consider tapping start-ups for potential sales-related opportunities, particularly start-ups that were founded by people with tech backgrounds who could have a greater appreciation of your skills.

Michael Ferguson, vice president of sales at wireless start-up Trapeze Networks, says techies could offer knowledge of how to articulate a message to potential customers who are IT folks like they are.

“Systems engineers have to have a technical background to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a product,” Ferguson says. “They also have a significant understanding of how to analyze [total cost of ownership] because they’ve been through it.”

Ferguson, who has held sales positions at Extreme Networks and Bay Networks, says the difference between start-ups and larger, established companies, is that start-ups tend to focus on the demeanor of the candidate rather than look at his specific technical background. “Start-ups are more weighted on personality. We look for someone who does not wait to be told what to do – they go figure out what’s got to be done and do it,” he says.